Sunday, January 22, 2017 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Matthew 4:12-23
Politics, Place, and Promise
It’s been a very full week in our world – with the inauguration on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, then the Women’s march on Washington and the multitude of concurrent Sister Marches across the nation and world, it’s almost too much to take in.
In keeping with the pace of our week, this portion of the Gospel is also a lot to take in; the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry takes off rather quickly. When Herod silences John, Jesus moves into Galilee to take up where John has left off, a transition of power of sorts, as Jesus picks up the work John has begun for him.
Jesus chooses to settle “in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” To fulfill the promises of God, as spoken through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this morning. Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” It’s beautiful, it’s poetry… and the people know it by heart, as soon as Matthew’s text gets started, they can join in, like hearing the beginning of a well-known song. They recognize these words that have been passed on for generations. Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali – these are the places of the promise. Land designated by God to be given to children of Abraham, land of divine gift. Yet they are occupied by imperial forces. They were occupied when Isaiah spoke these words, when he claimed that light would shine in the darkness and God would rescue the land and its people from oppression. And these same lands are occupied in the time of Jesus, this time by Roman forces. And Jesus professes the same claim as Isaiah, that the people who live in darkness will see a great light, God’s promised salvation will come to these lands – embodied in Jesus himself. Jesus will bring the light of God’s promises to God’s children in Roman occupied Galilee.
Our text continues, “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”” He sounds like John, doesn’t he? What does it look like for the kingdom of heaven to come near? Jesus shows us as he begins his ministry in Galilee: with a three-part plan. 1) Jesus declares the Kingdom of God. And he calls people to experience it.
2) Jesus calls followers. He walks around the sea of Galilee, and sees two brothers fishing in a boat, and he calls them to drop everything and follow him. And they leave their nets and follow him, as do the next two fishermen he comes across. They all leave their old lives behind and take up his call to follow him, to become part of creating God’s new kingdom.
3) Jesus preaches and heals. Jesus spends a lot of time healing, because there is so much to be done. (Do you ever wonder why everyone was so sick?) Life under the rule of Rome, under the realm of darkness, was bad for the people. 70 to 90% of people lived in poverty, in an environment of food insecurity and poor water quality. Most people suffered from diseases caused by malnutrition in a world that depended upon physical labor for survival, the outbreak of contagious disease would devastate whole communities. People lived under oppression, in poverty, and in fear of disease or suffering from it. Imagine the power of Jesus’ ministry as he brings good news and healing with him. He moves across Galilee, the light of God’s salvation in word and action. Restoring the damage done by the Roman empire, enacting God’s life-giving kingdom by restoring people’s lives here and now.
The last line of our text this morning: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” The people must have sighed with joy and relief, they had not been abandoned. The kingdom of God had drawn near – and that was very, very good news.
In my opinion, we could use some of that very, very good news. Because no matter where you stand politically, this week’s events indicate that while the divisive days of campaigning may be behind us, the difficult and contentious days are far from over. Leaving many wondering how we will make it through the next four years.
Maybe you watched the inauguration, glued to the screen… maybe you couldn’t bear to watch at all. Maybe you marched yesterday with one of the Women’s Marches, (many of us did) maybe you had other things you had to do, or you didn’t want to march, or didn’t understand what the big deal was. Maybe you still don’t. With all due respect, then I would suggest you pay more attention. Honestly this is one of those times in our history when we all need to be paying closer attention.
We could start with this morning’s letter from Paul to the church in Corinth – did you catch the language? For one, Paul goes out of his way to address the letter to: “my brothers and sisters,” both. Because the church was made up of both men and women, and he needs to acknowledge the women as much as the men. And then there’s his phrase, “Chloe’s people.” As Paul explains how he has gotten wind of what was happening, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people.” It’s very likely that Chloe was the head of a reasonably significant house church, and therefore Paul kind of has to mention her, to identify this group. Were there disciples of Christ, leaders of the early Christian Church who were women? You bet there were. Does Jesus think women are full human beings? What do you think?
During this election, what is now the current administration of the nation dragged us all, regardless of party, through hurtful and demonizing, even disparaging, rhetoric against women – as if these are ethics we agree upon, American values, as it were.
In response, yesterday half a million people marched on Washington, in the Women’s March, reclaiming the territory of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, and recalling this
nation’s promises of justice and equality. Two and a half million more marched in 600 Sister Marches all across the nation and the world, in place like: Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Nashville, Seattle, Boise, and Hartford. And around the world: in London, Paris, Athens, Madrid, Sydney, Barcelona, Oslo, Prague, Rome, Cape Town, New Delhi, Nairobi, Accra, and Tel Aviv. Because suddenly it feels as though women need to defend our gender as fully human and equal of the same respect as men. Because women’s rights are human rights. And defending not just women, but the most marginalized among us is defending us all. Defending the least of us is a Kingdom value, and always has been.
To do that we have to pay attention to what’s going on, how the people around us are being treated by the forces that would oppress and control. And if we can, step in to help make things better. To restore the lives of those who live in darkness, with some life-giving in the here and now.
We start by listening to the words being said by our leadership, and those around us, particularly what is being said in the casual conversations, the “small words,” and the language between the words, all that’s between the lines, and what is implied. What is the tone, the inflection, the nuance of what is being said? And what is NOT being said? Who is being left out in the cold? Who is being targeted? Who is being ignored? Who is being blamed?
Pay careful attention. Which people will need us to step up and protect them? Or be bearers of light and good news of God’s kingdom to them?
One example, I wish there were only one. This past week 27 Jewish Community Centers across the country received bomb threats, added to the 16 threatened the week before. One of the centers threatened was here in Portland. OUR Portland. This act of terror against the Jewish Community Center should be personally offensive to us – because when an act of prejudice and hatred is aimed at a community for reasons of their faith, it’s aimed at all communities of faith. The Jewish Community Center in Portland houses a day care, just like we do. It’s a preschool for 40 kids, some of whom we know personally (not that it matters, but it happens to be true). On Wednesday morning someone called in a bomb threat to the center and within minutes the teachers and staff had all the kids out the doors, telling the kids they were going on a field trip. They bundled up and went out for a walk to a warm space, while the police and bomb sniffing dogs came through the building. The kids have no idea what happened, and everyone is safe. I wish we could somehow shield them, change this world RIGHT NOW, so they NEVER know the kind of hatred that would phone in a bomb threat to a preschool. But I think that’s going to take some time, and some very hard work on our part.
Place matters, we hear that this morning, “land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali” – land promised by God to God’s own people. To the children of Abraham. The people who live in darkness have seen a great light.
This is our place, we live here – we have a claim to it, and it will be up to us to stake a claim for God’s Kingdom here in this place. Is this part of the land of promise? A place where all people
will see the light of salvation? Are we going to enact the life-giving kingdom in the here and now? Are we willing, if need be, to drop what we are doing, let our nets fall where they are, and leap onto the shore to follow, when Jesus needs a hand spreading some light?
If a community center or worshiping community needs our protection? If an unaccompanied minor is in trouble at the teen shelter and needs someone to act as temporary guardian? If a family is about to be separated for want of the right paperwork? Or evicted because they work, so don’t qualify for assistance and can’t make ends meet? The list of what we might be called to do is as numerous and diverse as the people who live in the communities around us.
Whatever your politics, we are called to do some ‘light in the darkness’ work; some promise work. Let’s roll up our sleeves, for we’ve got work to do. Let’s stake a claim here in our own place. Let’s show people what it looks like when the kingdom of God has drawn near… Today, tomorrow, for the next four years, and beyond.